It was a long drive to Pasadena, but well worth getting up at the crack of predawn to get here before noon. Then it was hugs for Kathy, Kathy's Mom, a bit more restrained hugs for Kathy's Dad.
They'd been sporadically in touch since her parent's death, and more often with the advent of the internet. Two doors down from her old house. Which had been repainted and landscaped and looked not at all like home.
Kathy was recently divorced, no kids, and chaffing under her parent's roof. "Once we sell the house, I'm out of here. But right now I'm paying half the mortgage and I just can't afford rent too."
"Wise of you to stay. Even if the parents are driving you crazy."
They sat at the kitchen counter and Kathy's mother snorted her opinion of that. And set a plate of fresh baked cookies in front of them.
Kathy eyed the cookies. "So . . . last I heard you were going to sell your Aunt's place, split the proceeds with Prissy and get back to New York. What happened?"
"My job went belly up. I figured I was better off living cheap and job hunting from there. Then all the interviews showed up down here. So . . . I suppose I'm back to selling it."
"How bad was the earthquake? Is it damaged?"
"It's standing, and I turned off the water at the house, but left it on for the cows and the horse. Although I think there was plenty of water in the pond to last them until they get the mains fixed." Del reached for a cookie. "Prissy's off to Reno with the adopted family, and I decided to take the old truck for a spin. So here I am, just for a couple of days. Once the water and power are back on, I head home and get the house in shape."
"Unless you get a job offer down here."
"Well, I'd still have to go back and deal with the details. Hugh's taking care of the livestock and . . ."
"Hugh? Who’s he? Is he single?" Kathy's mother brightened.
"Policeman. Yes, he’s single, no I am not dating him. Well, we went out to dinner. Once."
"Del! Not a policeman! They're violent, they have guns. They kill people, they get killed. And they are perennially underpaid."
"Like every other police force in existence. Yes, Kathy. I know." Del reached for another cookie, jerked her fingers back from a swat.
"Not before dinner. And you need to watch your figure, if you’ve finally started noticing men."
Del sighed. "I noticed men ten years ago. Dad scared them off."
"Oh, Del, he didn’t mean it."
Del grinned. "That’s all right. In retrospect, none of them were worth beans." She reached instead for the newspaper. The headlines screamed about last night’s police shoot out with a gang. And two more small earthquakes.
"I remember you dating Randal Bellow, he works for Dad's company now. Martin thinks highly of him." Kathy's mother looked her over. "I think he’ll like what you've done with your hair. The streaking is very well done. It brings out the sparkles in your eyes, I hadn't realized you had blue flecks in them."
I didn’t, until a few days ago, and I don’t care about Randal. Del kept her face neutral and concentrated on the paper. Below the fold a box promised a look at the recent outbreak of police violence. "Outbreak of police violence?"
"Yes. It’s this forever War on Drugs that never accomplishes anything. Other than to make the police act like the KGB. No knock warrants and warrantless searches. Property seizures when they don’t even charge the owners with a crime. It’s a crime against the Constitution. And this last week, it’s like we’ve somehow beamed up to the holodeck and found ourselves in a twentieth century OK Corral. The police are just shooting people!"
Del shivered. Just how bad is the zombie situation, down here? She snatched a cookie and started reading.
And went to the first interview in the morning. Waste of time. Dell got the distinct impression they were going through the forms before they promoted someone internally.
She took herself out for a pity lunch, a casual diner where she could sit and read the news on line. More overlap and zombie cover up.
For better or worse, Kathy's parents recycled newspapers. So the whole public side of the Overlap and the aftermath was right there in the recycle bin, waiting to be analyzed. With that as a basis, Del moved on to the internet. And the archives posts. Cross referenced user names, email addys, and . . . gradually she drew a map. Fourteen major overlaps in the greater SoCal area. All corresponding to the start of the police actions of the last three days and nights. Sometimes the gun battles migrated outside the Overlap areas, but . . . would there be a thin spot, a stuck spot, near the northeast corner of each one? If you considered the shape of the planet, the rotation, it made sense that the effect would flow "down rotation" and outward toward the equator. But a single example and a raw guess was only a starting spot. She needed a lot more data.
But, to return to the zombie problem . . .
Add in the census figures for a two by two mile patch around each hotspot.
"Almost three quarters of a million people? Holy Carp. Seventy-five times as many people as Reilly Creek. Even if ninety percent fled after the first couple merges, what was left behind means they have a huge problem." She glanced back at the computer screen. "And the secret is teetering on the brink of getting loose. ‘Zombie murders’ blamed on impurities in illegal drugs causing out of control rages. ‘PCP gets even worse.’ Right."
She tapped in a search for MRSA hospital admissions. And what had Hugh said? Bubonic Plague? Yes, that was it. They were isolating some cases of a variant of the Plague. "I wonder if I can get into their case histories, find out what they are treating them with? But if they have any success, surely they’ll spread the word quickly."
Or maybe zombies need a different sort of healing. Del pulled the little notebook out of her purse and frowned at the list. Thirteen magical words the various women she’d merged with had used. And what she was pretty sure they were intended to accomplish. "Ay ayeia or something close to that, to promote general healing of injuries. Trrrra paaaaan, that was pull." Could I use that to pull just the yucky stuff? Everything else is . . . too dangerous or not applicable. Or, well, if stun worked, that might be the way to safely nab a zombie, and get them in for IV antibiotics or something. She bit her lip. "I might kill them, though. Or get eaten. Or maybe linking magically is how something like this is contagious." She looked over at the stack of newspapers. "Or maybe I’d be more likely to find an ordinary gang member than a zombie." She got up and paced. "Carp. Drat. Horse’s mother. Right. I should be sensible and head right back for Reilly Creek, where I know one cop who might get me into a hospital to experiment in complete ignorance on another human being."
"Del, are you talking to yourself up there?" Kathy's mother’s voice carried up the stairwell.
Del leaned out the doorway. "Sorry. I'm rehearsing for the next interview. The last one was pathetic."
"Well, stop it. Come help me with these vegetables. I invited Randal to dinner."
Del suppressed a moan. "Speaking of zombies . . ." The last thing she needed was a former boyfriend being shoved at her.
But she chopped vegetables, roasted them, seasoned the steaks, and put on a pleasant face for Randal. He’d added a few years maturity to his original good looks, and obviously spent time at a gym. Dressed well. His complements came off as glib and well practiced, the charm was shallow, and the conversation aimed at impressing Kathy's father. Oh. Dear. My old boyfriend is a brown-nosed ass-kisser.
She smiled and started thinking of reasons she needed to return to Reilly Creek really soon. Tomorrow.
Right after she checked out the northeast corner of at least one of the overlap zones.
Back to the same damned streets and the same damned rat traps. They were all past queasiness and dropped dead rats into bags at high speed. And checked houses, and looked for anything that had changed since yesterday.
"Manny has to be sleeping somewhere."
Les nodded. "And eating something. Probably."
"South or west? He won’t find anything edible here in the center." Hugh frowned around. "The collapsed stores are probably attracting all the rats. Smashed jars and the stuff in the cold cases. Cereal, dog and cat food. Except it all merged so many times, would even a rat consider it edible?"
"I didn’t think there was anything organic they wouldn’t eat."
"Maybe I should go around, do a sniff test, there could be zombies in a lot of the collapsed buildings." Hugh tied off a bag and walked over to the truck. "Even though we’ve accounted for almost all of the people."
"Yeah, dogs, cats." Ron shook open a new bag and raked a trap out from under a half collapsed porch. "Other rats."
The world twisted around them, fog billowed up as cold air hit hot. They backed toward the center of the collecting area.
"Swampy, this is bad, we should get in the cars." Hugh edged toward his pickup. "Big mosquitoes, and avoid water, there could be leaches. Giant leaches."
Other shadows moved in the fog. Squeaks and rustles. And laughter.
"Just lost your shotguns, didn’t you, Pigs?" A tall shadow with Manny Torreson’s voice. "Do you dare shoot me? How much trust do you put in that metal, now, eh?"
Les reached into his car and pulled out the baseball bats. Handed one to Ron. Hugh had his police baton out already.
Les jerked around and peered into the fog. That had been a different voice.
A wet hacking cough from a third direction. "Brainzzzz!"
Laughing and coughing all around them. "Brainzzz!"
"Very funny." Hugh growled. "You lot need to get to the hospital. Antibiotics and such. Real food, not the half dirt and grass you’ll find here inside the merge zone. Don’t listen to Manny, he’s making trouble and you know it."
The coughing moved in closer. Les looked around. A quick head count of his people. Eight, nine including me. I’m short one.
The thud of running feet, more than one person. But out beyond the zombies. The shadow he thought was Manny turned suddenly, something loomed briefly over him, a real scream this time, as the zombie dived out of the way. The runner kept coming.
"Get in the cars!" Hugh yelled.
Les backed, slipped. He hit the ground, and had one clear look at something out of a Hollywood movie, something that had never coexisted with man. Gaping mouth, lots of teeth.
Hugh jumped it, slamming into it from the side. The teeth turned toward Hugh, the beast went down, writhed on the ground. Les scrambled back, couldn’t see Hugh. A baseball bat is not going to do the trick here. He reached and grabbed for the shotgun in the front seat of the car. The big scaly . . . dinosaur. Raptor. Heaved itself to all four legs, then shoved up onto the back two.
And turned away from him. Staggering a bit, uncoordinated. "Doh sh…"
Les leaned against the car, feeling a bit faint. "Barclay?"
"Ssss…" It lurched away, staggering in an uncertain circle.
Another raptor loomed out of the fog. Also unsteady. Pus weeping sores on its back. It wobbled at a trot after men scrambling for the cars. Ron turned, raised his shotgun. Nothing happened. The raptor batted it away. Les ran to the side, raised his and pulled the trigger. It barked reassuringly. The raptor flinched back, hissing. Small Game shot. Oh hell.
The raptor’s head snaked around, jaws opening and it reached for Les.
The raptor that might be Hugh leaped first, crashing into the other, jaws closing on the neck, back legs raking down the dinosaur’s side.
The world rippled and Hugh rolled away from a man on the ground.
He was gagging, staggered away and lost his breakfast. "I bit him! I can’t believe I bit that thing!"
Ron was pressed back against a car, eyes huge.
One of the Deputies grabbed a bottle of water and took it to Hugh.
The man on the ground was young, perhaps he’d been good looking, but now he was covered with weeping sores, a pus filled lesion on his right cheek. His neck was torn and bleeding, his abdomen ripped open, intestines bulged out and the odor of feces warred with the putrefaction for supremacy. Ron bolted for the bushes and vomited. Les hardened his stomach muscles and refused to join him. He looked down the street. Manny Torreson was laughing, and four other zombies were hacking and coughing or perhaps laughing with him.
"Torreson, you are under arrest." Les stalked toward him.
The zombie just laughed and tottered off between two houses. The other four turned away, and things rustled in the leaves. Brown rats. Large. Easily the size of a cat.
Les turned for the car. "Let’s get him, stay in groups, stay in the cars as much as possible."
The engine turned over once, stopped with a bang and jerk.
Hugh staggered back. "That was it’s third merge. How about the others?"
Two started. One kept running. Hugh’s truck started.
It was too late to try to pursue.
Les walked back to the zombie, it jerked, as if trying to stand. "Christ. Call for a live pickup. Let’s tie this guy up before he finishes off what Barclay started."
One of the deputies in the group laughed suddenly. "Hey, Barclay, what does a zombie taste like?"
"Shut up Goldhammer." Hugh rinsed his mouth out and spat again.
Les tried to grin with the rest of them, the tension in the air easing a bit. "Right, the zombies headed west, either they’re laying low, close by, or crossing the next ridge to those houses, and the old elementary school is there too, isn’t it?"
"They might be cutting south, you know, but, like, people are starting to move back in down there. If they went very far, we’d have had reports, you know." The blonde deputy kicked his squad car and walked over to the one still running.
Head count. Still one short. "Where was Johnson working?"
"East side." Jerry frowned. "I remember him going in that one." He led the way. Stopped abruptly. Johnson was sprawled on the floor. Blood everywhere, except for the outline of a hand over his mouth. Throat ripped. Huge gouges of crude fast butchery, big scallops of muscle carved off arms and legs.
Les managed to get outside before he heaved. The sound of footsteps preceded cowboy boots. Hugh Barclay.
"Dinosaur. How the hell can I trust you?"
"Guess you’ve got to figure that out for yourself." He placed the half bottle of water on the ground, turned and left.
Les straightened. Looking at the bottle the man had drunk out of made him feel sick all over again. He kicked the bottle and stomped away.
He heard someone on the radio, reporting in. The next zombie I see gets shot on sight. His eyes slid to the boy on the ground. Die slowly and painfully.
"I wish we had better information." Hugh grouched. "Myths are all well and good, but they disagree about zombies and the Full Moon."
His audience consisted of a dusty black draft horse, four cows and a bull. The cows were more interested in the hay he was tossing over the fence. The mare and the bull were listening to him. The stray dog Del was trying to befriend was not to be seen. Something was emptying the bowl every night, but raccoons, possums, or skunk were equally possible. Or rats.
"Anyway, you lot be careful. Anyone who smells like rotted meat is dangerous, and ought to be chased up a tree. And kept there." He snorted and turned away. "Talking to animals, now. What next?" His guts clenched. I almost killed Skippy Hastin. The high school football star. So what if he was a zombie dinosaur at the time. And I merged with a dinosaur. In front of a pack of Feds. If they’re wanting a clean sweep, I’m toast.
The memory of the taste, corruption and blood came back to him, and he stopped to lean on the house and get control of his gorge. Again.
The zombies ambushed Johnson, murdered and butchered him in silence. Hugh thought about Red and Gabby in the hospital. Maria Sanchez, with a seven year old son, and Justin Navarro, who had gone to school with Hugh’s youngest brother. There has to be a cure. Has to be.
And if there’s not? What do we do, wait and watch them die?
And if there is, how much do we endanger ourselves trying to capture the dangerous and violent – which could be any of them.
He braced his shoulders. I’ll do exactly what I did today. Stop them from hurting others, with deadly force if that’s all that will work.